An Unwelcoming Opener

An Unwelcoming Opener

SEP. 2 -- Football columnist Charles Chiccoa takes the UCLA bashing and USC basking like a man..

We should have known. I mean, whenever this program comes to a fork in the road, one way being Validation Blvd., the other being Bad News Ave., the Bruins will inevitably choose the most dangerous road traveled. Whether the opponent be Miami, Notre Dame, Washington State, Cal, Stanford , Arizona, SC (enumerable times!), UCLA, too often, winds up in a ditch, upside down, wheels spinning, wondering what the hell just happened. Anyway, the Virginia trip wasn’t fatal… actually more comic than anything else. Thank God they left there with a win, no matter how ugly… and in Terry Donahue’s oft-quoted phrase, “live to fight another day.” Meanwhile…

Bill Plaschke, “award winning sports writer,” is officially back to his one true love, “The Men of Troy.” In his finest deep-purple prose, this grown man is celebrating SC’s walkover of Fresno State (without benefit of a Carr) in terms worthy of Thucydides’ “Peloponnesian Wars.” A few samples: BR>
-- “The swatch of Cardinal flew down the sidelines, arms pumping, feet skipping, play card flapping.”

-- “In Saturday’s brilliant homecoming parade, Steve Sarkisian was the prettiest of floats.”

-- “He hugged helmets, smacked shoulder pads, leaped into the thick air, crouched on the warm grass, fittingly rollicked along the Coliseum sidelines as if it were the backyard of his youth.”

-- “His USC players? They were the parade’s high stepping band, new and shiny, twirling and trilling, entertaining and, oh yeah, resounding in victory.” And so on…

But enough of this gooey, Plashkanian, prose poetry. (Poor guy probably marinated himself in too much Kahlil Gibran as a wide eyed sophomore.)

Now if you’re one of those folks who think that talk of our cross-town rivals is bad form, that recognition of them demonstrates an unseemly fear, then please refer back to George Dickerson, Billy Barnes, Pepper Rodgers and, more recently, Bob Toledo, Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel. As we all know, these particular coaches were not (as coaches are apt to say) “big enough for the occasion,” which in this case includes meeting reasonable (or better) expectations and dealing successfully with Trojan Nation and their vast minions. It’s well known SC is a crowd of steely, “bottom liners” who will fight by any means necessary. Boy scouts need not apply. Under Pete Carroll, SC was out to bury UCLA football and damn near succeeded. Dickerson (certainly) and Barnes knew they could never fill Red Sanders’ shoes; Rodgers couldn’t fill Prothro’s shoes; Toledo couldn’t coach defense (or find an assistant who could); Dorrell was an unqualified nonentity (who at least produced a 10-win season); and Neuheisel was a recruiter, PERIOD! It’s something like a miracle UCLA isn’t really a basketball school.

*****

The fact is, UCLA, despite winning the game in Charlottesville, still were caught laying a rotten egg, while a few hours later SC was “twirling and trilling” it up in the Coliseum, which suggests SC may be movin’ on up in the weekly football polls while the Bruins are moving down a step. The polls now are more important than ever. Perception, if not all, is certainly the most important factor in “going Bowling” in the New Year (or as Tiger Woods might say, “the bowls are where it’s at.”) It’s going to take some work to regain the media’s and the pollster’s trust, after 28-20. Memphis State needs to be handled harshly, if possible, and Texas needs to be a win… at which point, let the cards fall where they may. UCLA cannot be as bad as they looked Saturday morning. God help us if they are.

*****

So what exactly went wrong? As usual, it looked as if the Bruins went into a road game tight… that and the fact that Virginia came in loose, aggressive, in-your-face angry. The Cavaliers had lost 10 games last year, their coach, Mike London, was on the hot seat and, demonstrably, they had no fear of the Bruins. London kept repeating, “They’ve got to cross three time zones to play us here.” The Bruins, of course, thought they’d be “fine.” One team let it all hang out while the other, the better team, seemed more businesslike than you’d normally like to see. This was never so obvious as just before halftime, when Jim Mora blithely chose to go for the knockout when Virginia seemed satisfied to go into halftime down 21-3. Jim stopped the clock two or three times. Virginia said okay, we’ll take what we can get. It turned out to be a well-executed one minute drive capped off by a nicely thrown touchdown play cutting their deficit to 21-10. Almost as important, they now had the momentum.

Make no mistake: the Bruins could easily have lost this game. I hope these Cavaliers are nothing like last year’s losers. I must say, their substitute quarterback proved to be an unwelcome surprise. Also, London should be applauded for giving such a quick hook to his presumably demoralized starter. (Norm Chow would’ve waited till he graduated.) At that point the Bruins should have sussed out how much Virginia wanted this game, how confident they still were. Meantime, the Bruins offense was still playing around to no effect, living off the sweat of the defensive front.

As usual, Brett Hundley’stats seemed a bit inflated: 20 for 34, no picks, 15 rushes for 39 yards. I keep going back and forth on this guy. I didn’t catch as many practices as usual, but he did look improved to me. A slow starter, perhaps? Like some others, I thought last year’s SC game and the Virginia Tech bowl game were turning points for him. But he regressed on Saturday, and he was outplayed by the young, sub quarterback, Johns. To be fair, Brett also made the two most important plays of the game: his powerful, twisting, six-yard run for the offense’s only score of the third quarter, then his 35-yard completion to Jordan Payton, which effectively ended Virginia’s hopes for the upset of the weekend.

Speaking of Payton, he certainly came up aces. He was easily the Bruins’ most effective receiver, catching 8 balls for nearly 100 yards. Eldrige Massington was the only other receiver of note. Devin Lucien caught only three balls for negligible yardage. Obviously, there were too many drops, which must be discouraging to Hundley (though he’ll never admit it) when he’s having one of those games.

The offensive line is a tired story we’re all too familiar with. These guys are the most likely to go down with injuries, particularly serious ones. They’re generally the slowest, least athletic guys on the field. Any coach is well advised in stocking up on these nasty, 300-pound hand fighters, certainly at UCLA.

The DBs were generally okay except for being outsized by bigger, more physical receivers. Seriously, Priest Willis is not a cornerback, at least not yet. Poor guy was also unlucky when his helmet got ripped off and he put it back on and kept playing. Can’t blame him much for not knowing the rule. He must have been crushed when it cost Ishmael Adams and the Bruins a long kickoff return for a touchdown.

So, next up Memphis at the Rose Bowl. If my Lindy’s is to be believed, these guys don’t look as good as Virginia. After the downer on Saturday morning, the Rose Bowl should be a hornet’s nest Saturday evening. How about something like 52-13? That and a 28-20 loss at Stanford. Go Trees!

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